1.3 Miles of Gravel and Glass

Blog entry posted by Jon from PDX, Sep 20, 2018.

Today I went for a three mile walk, unshod, which included 1.3 miles of gravel path. I’ve walked that route dozens of times in shoes but it wasn’t nearly as smooth as I remember it. This barefoot walk was possibly the most intense experience of my life, surpassing the exhilaration of topping a mountain, the stress of sitting my first law exam, and the stunned, stunted panic from watching someone mere feet away draw a gun in anger. Here are a few things that I learned:

  • Glass has more bark than bite. I know of which I speak. I have an inch-long scar on the bottom of my right foot from stepping on glass as a child. But, today, I saw glass everywhere and was easily able to step around it. After all, if you’re able to avoid gnarly rocks, you can avoid glass, too — you just need to be able to see it. (That scar? From something sharp, presumably glass, hidden in the murk of a riverbed.) I saw a ton of glass today, avoided it all, and hope to go back soon with gloves and a bag to remove as much as I can.
  • Gravel type doesn’t really make a difference once it is much larger than sand. It all hurts: jagged crushed rock or rounded river stone, smaller than your fifth toenail or larger than your great toe. Also, it all can feel fine! What matters is how deep is settles, what it rests on top of, and, most importantly, how you step on it. Nice, pleasant, smooth river rock can really suck if you come down with just one of those under your midfoot; jagged, pointy little devils can actually be quite pleasant if there’s enough give beneath them; the worst of the worst won’t matter because you step next to them, not on top of them. The most painful step I took today was with a pointy rock under both my forefoot and my heel, preventing me from rebalancing my weight, but I could have avoided that if I had seen it coming. And the pain was gone after a single stride: no harm, no foul.
  • Having high arches isn’t always a blessing, it seems. Today I envied people with flatter feet, who can distribute their weight over a larger area. I also found more inspiration to continue losing weight, as the more I lose, the less angry those rocks will be.
  • The main discomfort of going unshod is from overstimulated nerves, not damaged skin. I’m new at barefooting. Today’s three-mile walk represents maybe ten to twenty percent of the total distance I’ve gone unshod, running or walking (not including beaches or loitering in the back yard). My brain is still getting used to it. Walking to the trail on a mix of concrete and asphalt wasn’t uncomfortable but it also wasn’t comfortable, either. Then I spent an hour plodding along through gravel that was rougher than expected, at times trying not to cry out in pain, and when I thought it might help to focus on my breathing I did a good enough job that I got light-headed. Then I returned to pavement and it felt glorious, like a tender footrub. No padded shoe ever felt so gentle. If anything, my foot had been rubbed a bit raw on the trail, so it wasn’t the development of calluses that made barefoot walking more comfortable. The human brain is amazingly adaptive, and once it gets used to a new normal level of stimulation, whether from walking on rocks or smoking cigarettes, every other sensation is judged in relative terms.

My understanding of barefooting has changed. I now think there are three, interrelated aspects to barefoot running that require training before one can go out and run long distances comfortably. The first is strength, where muscles in the feet need to develop just like in the legs and the chest. The second is skill, which includes learning how to change one’s gait, how to listen to one’s body, and how and when to override the body’s inclinations. The third is neuromotor development, which involves exposing the brain and body to new stimuli and letting the unconscious mind (mostly the cerebellum, right?) explore different patterns of coordination.

Walking home, my gait had continued its evolution. Today my relaxed cadence was in the mid-120s to low-130s, nearly a slow jog. It still felt odd but good, less like transportation and more like early childhood playtime, yet faster and more comfortable than the walking I’ve been doing for decades.

Oh, and while you’re developing those skills, make a conscious choice about whether or not to bring backup shoes. If I had, I would have put them on and wouldn’t have learned as much as I did. But, if I didn’t already have months of time walking in minimalist shoes and a modest bulk of miles unshod on pavement, today’s walk might have been overwhelming and put me off the endeavor entirely. I recommend playing it safe: build up gradually to those risks that reach a bit too far, but commit fully to exploring those risks that feel far riskier than you know they actually are.

I’m looking forward to walking that path in my bare feet again and I’m wondering if I’ll ever feel up to conquering it totally with an unshod run.
Jon from PDX

About the Author

Jon is a nerd with an affinity for sport. He loved playing soccer until a growth spurt led to knee pains that ended his running career, but went on to bike recreationally and row competitively while studying physiology and psychology (go, uh, Raiders?). He then studied law (go Irish!), and became a business writer (“Shark Tank” is for entrepreneurs on Easy Mode), and is currently running again for the first time in decades thanks to going barefoot.